Patriarchy as a System of Male Dominance Created at the Intersection of the the Control of Women, Private Property, and War, Part 1 by Carol P. Christ


Patriarchy is often defined as a system of male dominance. This definition does not illuminate, but rather obscures, the complex set of factors that function together in the patriarchal system.  We need more complex definition if we are to understand and challenge the the patriarchal system in all of its aspects.

Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*

Marx and Engels said that the patriarchal family, private property, and the state arose together. Though their understanding of the societies that preceded “patriarchy” was flawed, their intuition that patriarchy is connected to private property and to domination in the name of the state was correct.  It has long seemed to me that patriarchy cannot be separated from war and the kings who take power in the wake of war.  Many years ago I was stunned by Merlin Stone’s allegation that in matrilineal societies there are no illegitimate children, because all children have mothers. Lately, I have been trying to figure out why the Roman Catholic and other churches and the American Republican party are so strongly opposed to women’s right to control our own bodies and are trying to prevent access to birth control and abortion. In the above definition of patriarchy, I bring all of these lines of thought together in a definition which describes the origins of patriarchy and the interconnections between patriarchy, the control of female sexuality, private property, violence, war, conquest, rape in war, and slavery. 

The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence.  It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated.  Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the “nature” of “men” to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable. Some women and some men have resisted patriarchy throughout its history. We can join together to resist it today.

My definition of patriarchy is influenced by new research collected and analyzed by Heide Goettner-Abendroth in Societies of Peace, who advances our understanding of prepatriarchal societies which she calls “matriarchal” “societies of peace.”  Goettner-Abendroth identifies the deep structure of matriarchies using four markers: 1) economic:  these societies usually practice small scale agriculture and achieve relative economic equality through gift-giving as a social custom: 2) social:  these societies are egalitarian, matrilineal, and matrilocal with land being held in the maternal clan and both men and women remaining in their maternal clan; 3) political:  these societies are egalitarian and have well-developed democratic systems of consensus; 4) culture, spirituality:  these societies tend to view Earth as a Great and Giving Mother.  Most importantly and permeating everything, these societies honor principles of care, love, and generosity which they associate with motherhood, and believe both women and men can and should practice.

The Masuo culture of the Himalayas which has been recently studied, even as it is disappearing, is a classic example. I first learned of it while watching Michael Palin discuss Masuo sexual customs with a Masuo woman in his documentary Himilaya.  This woman explained to Palin that in her culture women and men define themselves through their connections to maternal clans. When a girl reaches the age of sexual maturity, her mother prepares a room where she can invite a man to dine with her. If she chooses, she invites him to spend the night with her. Children produced from such unions become part of the maternal clan. The “fathering” role is assumed by the uncles and brothers of the mother and the mothering role is shared among sisters. If either member of a couple tires of their sexual relationship, they end it and find other partners.  Michael Palin obviously had a hard time believing his ears.

This story illustrates an important difference between the matrilineal and matrilocal customs of the Masuo and those of the patriarchal cultures with which we are familiar.  Among the Masuo women choose their sexual partners freely and are free to end one sexual relationship and find another.  There are no illegitimate children because all children have mothers. There are no “loose” women (think about the meaning of that term) or “whores’ because women are free to have sex with whomever they choose. The Virgin-Whore dichotomy–so well-known in patriarchal cultures–simply does not exist.

With the contrast provided by the Masuo, I came to understand on a deeper level that patriarchy is a system of male domination in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality.  The control of female sexuality through the institutions of patriarchal marriage is not incidental to patriarchy, but rather is central. The customs that surround patriarchal marriage including the requirement that brides are untouched sexually or “virgin,” the “protection” of a girl’s virginity by her father and brothers, the seclusion of girls and women, the requirement that wives must be sexually faithful to their husbands, and the enforcement of these customs through shaming, violence, and the threat of violence, all have one purpose: to ensure that a “man’s” children are his.  While it is relatively easy to know who a child’s biological mother is, it is not so easy to be certain about the biological father. If a woman has more than one lover, then without DNA testing, which has only recently become discovered, it is nearly impossible to be absolutely certain who a child’s father is.  One solution to this dilemma is to define fatherhood in other ways.  The second is to control women’s sexuality absolutely.

One might ask: why it is so important for a man to know who his biological children are that a complicated system of secluding and shaming women in order to control their sexuality had to be developed?  The answer is found in the next clause of my definition: patriarchy is a system of male domination in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs. Marx and Engels were right that patriarchy and private property are integrally related. There would be no need for a man to be sure of the paternity of his children if the institution of individual private property did not exist and if the value of individuals were not defined by the property they own and pass on to their heirs, usually sons.

Recently, I realized that the word for inheritance or inherited property in modern Greek, periousia, a word taken from ancient Greek, illustrates the connection of property and identity more clearly than the English word inheritance.  Ousia in ancient Greek refers to one’s being or essence. Peri-ousia is that which surrounds one’s essential being and thus defines “who” one “is.”  Its clear meaning is that “who one is” is defined by “the property” one inherits and passes on.  Without the close identification of the “essence” of a man with his property, there would not need to be such a strict concern with knowing that the inheritors of a man’s property “really are” his biological sons.

The next question is:  how did a system that identifies a man’s essence with his property and the ability to pass it on to sons come about? I suggest that the answer to this question is war and the confiscation of “property” by warriors in war.  To be continued next week. See Part 2 and Part 3.

*I am offering here a functional definition of patriarchy that does not address the separate question of why it originated.

*See the expanded version with footnotes: “A New Definition of Patriarchy: Control of Female Sexuality, Private Property, and War,” Feminist Theology 23/3 (2016).

Carol P. Christ’s new books are Goddess and God in the World with Judith Plaskow and A Serpentine Path. Join her on a Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring or fall. Carol is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. Her earlier books include She Who Changes, and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.